Commentary: The high price of voting in Delaware

How we vote is now a national discussion. Long gone are the days of lever machines and hanging chads. Americans and Delawareans have gone through many phases including electronic voting. In 2016 the issue of cyber security made the need for new voting infrastructure immediate because states like Delaware were voting on hackable machines with no paper trail.

Many states, including Delaware, began to plan on how to replace the old insecure voting machines with something more secure from hackers or other system failures. States are turning to hand marked paper ballots for security and cost, but some states are buying computer voting systems that are expensive and require long term contracts.

Jennifer Hill

Most voters know that Delaware had to replace the old voting system and that the state is buying a new one. Last September, the Department of Elections Voting Equipment Selection Task Force announced that they would purchase the ES&S Express Vote XL system for $13 million. In multiple public venues and multiple media outlets, the election commissioner was quoted stating the total cost of the system as $13 million dollars.

However, during the recent Joint Finance Committee (JFC) budget hearing it was revealed that the five-year cost of the system is actually $18.3 million. Common Cause would like to know why the Election Commissioner repeatedly used the $13 million price tag in public and to the media, and what is the real cost?

Common Cause Delaware has repeatedly asked about the total cost and life expectancy of the system that was to be purchased, to be ignored and told that it was proprietary information and could not be shared with the public. Last year Common Cause proposed that the state adopt a handmarked paper ballot system because we wanted the public to know there are other cost effective, secure options.

We had one expert who estimated paper ballots would cost about $10,000 per polling place and another $17,000 per county for the election management system.

Calculating 420 polling places across the state it would cost Delaware about $4.25 million to purchase a paper ballot system that uses an optical scanner. Importantly, Delaware already uses handmarked paper ballots with an optical scanner for absentee voting.

The costs for paper ballots could exceed the $4.25 million estimate, but would not begin to approach $18.3 million ES&S LLC will receive from the state.

How do such big deals get made in such a small state? The election system corporations often spend money like they did here in Delaware to help lobby for the purchase of their systems. They hired representation but no lobbying expenses were reported in those years.

They aren’t required to report in detail but the expenditures do coincide with the process to select a new voting system. The process to purchase or lease the voting system was kicked off with legislation in 2016 and the contract was awarded in 2018, payments are being made in 2019.

Common Cause is also on the record when the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement voted last September to provide $10 million in bonding for the costs. Before legislators voted, we put many questions to them… “the ES&S system obviously needs human effort (manpower) for installation, repair, education, maintenance and improvement. So the line between a capital expenditure and an ongoing expense to be borne out of the state annual budget is not so clear.

How is this resolved by the committee?” At the very least the public should know that a $13 million dollar payment will be made this year and between $1.5 and $2.5 million in payments will be made each year for the next four years on this system for a total of $18.3 million.

There is every reason to ask questions and petition for the transparency of the process when such an costly purchase is made by the State. Neither the OMB office of procurement nor the Department of Elections wanted the seven voting system proposals to be made public. Common Cause used the FOIA process and forced that information be released to the public. When OMB did provide the information to Common Cause in July of 2018 there was an error that omitted the final pricing sheet on the ES&S proposal.

That pricing sheet was shared with Common Cause on Feb. 13. According to the OMB… “Please note this is the pricing submitted in the bid response and was subject to negotiation prior to contract signature.” Apparently not much negotiation was done since the corporation asked for and is being paid $18.3 million, that information is attached.

When recently asked about the cost discrepancy by the Delaware State News, the election commissioner responded that the system would only cost about $100,000 more a year to run. What that means and when that period begins, is unclear. Common Cause believes the cost of a secure, effective and accurate system is worth the price to instill confidence in our elections.

However, that does not mean that the state need purchase the most costly and complicated system available for sale. ES&S LLC is the same voting system corporation that the State of Maryland contracted with first for voting machines and then switched to hand marked paper ballots with an optical scanner starting in 2016.

It may not be too late to stop the deal, so the state should reconsider the purchase. According to the proposal and Appendix C of the proposal the costs are to be paid in phases and the state is in the Implementation and User Acceptance phase. Final user acceptance is due by May 31. The state should delay any funding and reconsider hand marked paper ballots for security and cost savings before we pay this high price.

Jennifer Hill is program director/lobbyist for Common Cause Delaware.

Facebook Comment